The verdict by a Florida jury that George Zimmerman is not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin settles — pending review by the U.S. Justice Department — the legal question of his criminal culpability. Jurors listened attentively and deliberated carefully, and the rule of law must be respected. But the central tragedy of this case — the death of a 17-year-old boy who had been on a simple errand to get snacks — remains.
“You have no further business with the court,” the Seminole County judge told Zimmerman moments after the jury of six women at 9:47 p.m. Saturday delivered the twin verdicts of not guilty to the tense courtroom — and to a national audience attracted by the cable television coverage. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, claiming self-defense after he said the teenager knocked him to the ground and hit his head against the sidewalk. Prosecutors had argued that Zimmerman instigated the confrontation by assuming the youth had no place in the gated Sanford community and was up to no good and then following him against the express advice of police. Martin, who was unarmed, was walking back to his father’s home after going to a store for candy and a soft drink.
Never a simple homicide, Martin’s death became the subject of a charged debate about race, criminal profiling and Florida’s permissive “stand your ground” gun law. Despite the jury’s verdict, those issues are not likely to go away. One reason the death of this boy in a gray hooded sweatshirt so resonated that even the president of the United States felt compelled to comment was that it brought to the surface historic concerns of minority parents about the vulnerability of their sons. The ineptness of Florida authorities in the initial investigation of this death validated that worry and deepened the distrust.
Unfortunately, though, much of the public debate has done grievous disservice to the legitimacy of these issues. Hucksters and political demagogues exploited tragedy — a boy’s death, a family’s grief, a man’s freedom — and created what has become the now all-too-familiar media circus of oversaturation and rush to judgment.
Zimmerman’s attorney called the prosecution “disgraceful.” But we think it was valuable that the case was aired in an open court before a fair-minded judge and decided by a jury that appeared to be careful and take its time. Guilt was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and Zimmerman is free to resume his life even as his attorney lamented that it “will never be the same.”
That also is as it should be. Zimmerman could have done what police told him to do and stayed in his vehicle. No one would have heard about him — and Trayvon Martin could have been able to get home on that rainy Sunday evening.
The following editorial appeared in The Washington Post on Monday.